Over the past three days I’ve come across two references that place Robert K. Krick, squarely in the camp of Southern historians. The reference is meant not simply to denote field of interest but a “pro-South” or “pro-Confederate” bias. As many of you know Krick worked for 31 years as the chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. These claims are made with apparently no attempt at verification; it’s as if his body of scholarship speaks for itself in terms of his place of birth. Of course, Krick is not native to the South; rather he was born and raised in California. Before proceeding let’s be clear that Krick’s work on the Army of Northern Virginia is essential reading for any Civil War enthusiast. In short, few people know more about Lee’s army than Krick.
If you are unfamiliar with his work I recommend the following titles:
- Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain (University of North Carolina Press, 2001)
- The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy: The Death of Stonewall Jackson and Other Chapters on the Army of Northern Virginia(Louisiana State University Press, 2004)
- Conquering the Valley (reprint: Louisiana State University Press, 2001)
This loose interpretation of Krick’s work suggests that one of the key differences within the Civil War community is not between folks who are supposedly “pro” or “anti” anything or who fall along different sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, but between competing ways of looking at the past.
A closer look not at Krick’s scholarship, but his public talks and more casual writings is instructive. He has expressed grave concern over the expansion of battlefield interpretation at NPS battlefields. Back in 2007 I took part in a Civil War symposium at the University of Virginia that included Krick. As you can see in my report of that talk [and here], Krick tends to go after some of the same academic historians over and over such as William G. Piston, Thomas Connelly, and Michael Fellman, which suggests that his grasp of recent Civil War scholarship is shaky at best. I was asked to respond to Krick and the other speakers, which you can read here. Krick brushes off most modern scholarship concerning Lee and the rest of the Confederate pantheon as “psycho-babble” which is odd given the amount of time he spends assuming the motivation of academics.
If Krick is not a “Southern historian” in this parochial sense than what is he? For an answer I would direct you to the latest issue of Southern Cultures, which includes an essay by Peter Carmichael, titled, “Truth is Mighty and Will Eventually Prevail: Political Correctness, Neo-Confederates, and Robert E. Lee” (Fall 2011). I first heard Peter give this talk a few years ago in Lexington. In it he argues that Krick and Fellman represent two different approaches to understanding the past. Krick’s approach to the past reflects a Victorian perspective that assumes that the past is fixed and that moral lessons can clearly be discerned through, among other things, the study of biography. Such a view explains Krick’s interest in Jackson and Lee and his disdain for those, who he believes constitute a threat to what he sees as the traditional interpretation. According to Carmichael, Fellman’s biography of Lee represents a modernist turn that emphasizes complexity and revisionism in historical studies. Such an analytical stance throws into question the possibility of gleaning moral lessons from the past. Click here if you would like to read more of my summary of Carmichael’s talk, which should give you a good sense of what he does in his SC essay.
While I have some disagreements with Pete’s analysis it does offer us a way to move beyond the simplicity of the categories referenced at the beginning of this post. In the end the description of Krick as a Southern historian really has nothing at all to do with his place of birth or anything to do with geography. It’s about how one approaches the study of the past.